The distortions of Voice are a heartless response to a call for reconciliation

Emeritus Professor Andrea Durbach

As a lawyer working with victims of South African apartheid laws in the last years of its reign, I was witness to the cruel, inhumane and insidious impact of racist legislation. My legal work in Australia with members of the Stolen Generations revealed analogous patterns of immediate harm and enduring trauma among survivors of systematic removal of children from their families and their land. Like apartheid, forced removals were pernicious in design and sanctioned by law. The glib distortions that have emerged in response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart hit new levels of perversion last month when One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson equated an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament with South Africa’s racist and brutal apartheid regime. 

Announcing One Nation’s campaign to lead the ‘no’ vote in the impending referendum, Senator Hanson declared that the Voice to Parliament would give “a minority of people more political power than the majority based on race”. And as if she would have us believe she was an eager opponent of racism, Senator Hanson then questioned how Australians could possibly contemplate “that sort of thing … known as apartheid” in our country? 

Following Prime Minister Albanese’s commitment at the Garma Festival to enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution, millions of Australians are finally now able to contemplate a collective rejection of the racism experienced by First Nation Australians for hundreds of years. 

Racism was foundational to apartheid’s purpose. The minority white apartheid state devised a myriad of oppressive laws to enforce and legitimise the exercise of unjust power against the majority of South Africans, effectively stripping them of any rights as first citizens in their land of birth. 

Senator Hanson’s claim that apartheid was divisive is accurate. However, at the core of that division and central to apartheid’s rationale, was the protracted exclusion of the voice of the majority of South Africans based entirely on the colour of their skin. 

South Africa’s rejection of apartheid in the historic 1994 elections and its embrace of a non-racial democracy was a reversal of the systematic and cruel negation of the voice of black South Africans for close to 50 years. It also signalled the beginning of the direct participation of black South Africans in the development and application of the laws and policies that affect their lives. 

The preamble to South Africa’s1996 Constitution acknowledges the need to honour those who suffered the injustices of the past and commits the people of South Africa, through their elected representatives, to ‘[i]mprove the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.’

That is exactly the purpose of a Voice to Parliament: to validate Australia’s First Nations people who have endured the indignity and harm of exclusion for decades, and to guide our elected representatives on the design and development of laws and policies that will better reflect and enhance Indigenous lives. Nothing more. 

There will be no transfer of the balance of power within parliament. That power, for the foreseeable future at least, will remain exactly where it has always been – largely in the hands of white Australia. 

An analogous, effective example of a First Nations Voice to Parliament is the ACT Elected Body which was established in 2008. Consisting of seven representatives of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, this body proposes and evaluates programs and designs services for consideration by the ACT government and its agencies. 

The Elected Body, now in existence for over a decade, has been an advocate for the interests and aspirations of the local community, working within negotiated processes of engagement with the ACT government to constructively inform Indigenous policies. 

Contrary to Senator Hanson’s prediction, there is no evidence to date that this elected body, representing a minority community, has acquired “more political power than the majority based on race.” On the contrary, the ACT Parliament continues to hold power, free at any stage to receive and equally, to reject, information or advice from the Elected Body.

The fatuous attempts to depict a simple, straightforward Voice to Parliament as analogous to apartheid is divisive scaremongering at best, or a clear rejection – yet again – of the presence and participation of First Nations Peoples in our society, at worst. And a rejection of recognition of the original inhabitants of this land from its primary founding document, is a vote for their continued exclusion based on race. And that, Senator Hanson, is apartheid.

Andrea Durbach is an Emeritus Professor and was Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre (now Institute) in UNSW Law from 2004-2017. She is now an Australian Human Rights Institute Associate.